The CBS technodrama is a fascinating take on information ethics, but it’s not half bad in the area of theology. You just have to remember where the analogies end and reality begins.
Fans of the show Person of Interest were recently treated to “4C,” a bottle episode that set in motion the reunion of Harold Finch and John Reese, the duo whose collaborative efforts comprise the central premise of the show. It’s no surprise that showrunner Jonathan Nolan goes casually by the name “Jonah,” because Reese’s journey is similar to the titular Biblical fish story, only instead of the belly of a great fish, Reese’s cathartic reversal happens in the first-class section of a commercial jet.
The plot machinations were nothing particularly original, touching on common 21st-century spycraft elements – Bitcoins and the dark net, identity theft, etc. But Reese’s inner journey echoed the Jonah story — he fled his calling, but ended up unwittingly detoured into the thing that he was running from. Except instead of preaching to Ninevites to repent, Reese was protecting a key figure from shadowy assassins. And instead of divine intervention, Reese was being shepherded by The Machine.
The Machine, if you’ve never seen the show’s opening sequence, is a massive artificially-intelligent surveillance program created by the American government to prevent acts of domestic terror — but as Michael Emerson’s voiceover says, “it sees everything.” If Siri believed in Santa Claus and then married Big Brother, their child would be The Machine.
In the early stages of the show’s development, The Machine was mostly a plot device – that is to say, it was the thing that propelled the show’s heroes into the fray to get on with the business of helping people (or, failing that, stopping them from hurting others). But after a while, viewers began to see how it was developing a life of its own. Not only was it constantly learning and interacting with the main characters, but it developed a sentient ability to protect itself, and it found ways to grant unsolicited access and direction in surprising ways. Three seasons in, it has become, for most intents and purposes, like God.
How appropriate, right? What a quintessentially American concept, a man-made God that watches over us and knows us better than we know ourselves. In an age where there are twelve times as many Google hits for “iPhone” as there are for “Bible,” (go ahead, try it yourself) it’s not surprising that the dominant image of God in American entertainment would be a giant gadget. This society’s view of God has more in common than moralistic therapeutic deism than actual Christianity.
And yet, when it comes to Person of Interest, it’s not totally off-base, either.
Consider one of the emotional beats of “4C,” when Reese lashes out because he doesn’t understand all of the Machine’s ways. It’s clear from context that he is still mourning the loss of a friend (in case you’re new to the show, I won’t reveal who), and he’s angry that somehow the Machine can save thousands and thousands of people, but his friend still died. Later on, Harold reminds John that even though the machine works in mysterious ways, humans like them still have an essential role to play.
Or observe the character Root.
Audiences were initially introduced to Root (Amy Acker) as a renegade super hacker. Initially her motives seemed nefarious, and she was proven to be dangerous. But eventually, she’s become more a frenemy to John, Harold and company, even assisting them on missions from time to time. And what really sets Root apart is her devotion to the Machine. Root never calls the Machine by an impersonal pronoun, but refers to “her.” It’s obvious that she (Root) believes in the Machine as a sort of god, one she follows with fanatical religious devotion, even at great personal cost. She trusts the Machine with her life, and time after time, is rewarded in miraculous fashion. Initially wounded and jaded, the Machine has turned her into a true believer.
Or consider the journey of detective Lionel Fusco, who was initially introduced as a corrupt police officer. Through the relationships that he develops in the process working with John and Harold to fulfill the Machine’s missions, he leverages his ill-gotten status inside the police’s criminal elite to help take down their network from the inside, and develops a level of integrity and trustworthiness that he never had before. That kind of redemption has shades of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3.
Maybe these parallels are more intentional than I thought. Maybe Jonah Nolan and JJ Abrams are secretly trying to indoctrinate us with Christian symbolism. Or maybe it’s just as simple to say that we’re human beings hard-wired for divine truth, and these truths find their way into popular entertainment.
But the compelling thing about this vision of God is precisely what makes it so dangerous; in many ways, it’s not that far off from established Christian orthodoxy. After all, there are many aspects of God on display in Person of Interest’s depiction of the Machine that are spot-on. His omniscience and omnipresence, for example; at no point is the Machine ever depicted as off, nonfunctional, or out of range. And the characters of Person of Interest are often at a loss as to why the Machine is operating in a certain way, only to understand what was happening later, in some cases, much later.
Also, there’s an extent to which the Machine appears to be both transcendent and imminent. Its transcendence is expressed through its ability and willingness to supersede any kind of natural boundaries or restraints – like when it fabricated a series of identities and shell corporations in order to manipulate its relocation across various state lines to elude nefarious baddies. And yet, its willingness to intervene on the “irrelevant list,” potential violent crimes that fall beneath the terrorism threshold, suggest a sense of intimate presence and concern for the lives of those within its purview, which would appear to be, well, everyone.
But every analogy breaks down somewhere, so before pastors across the nation start setting their DVRs for sermon illustrations, it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which the motif of Machine-As-God falters.
Throughout the show’s run, the “face” of the machine is often depicted as a security camera, with a whirring, unblinking red eye. Given the prominent role of security footage in the pursuit of criminal suspects, this paints an image of God with a judgmental, vindictive veneer. Also, seeing God as a disembodied, nameless, faceless AI program may sort of track with our idea of God as primarily a spirit, but it completely ignores the humanity of Jesus, suggesting instead a Gnostic rejection of the body and its carnal realities. If The Machine has no body, it is everywhere – and it’s nowhere.
Thinking about this in the context of my own ministry, I feel somewhat convicted. I am a strategic, systems-based thinker. People with my ministry approach can sometimes view people in the same way the Machine might – fungible and interchangeable, valuable only in the context of their usefulness to my overall plan. Sometimes I try to solve problems like the Machine would, assuming that more accurate or timely information is the key to solving any personnel challenge.
But often, effective church ministry doesn’t require more information as much as it requires more incarnation. People who are hurt and struggling don’t need accurate statistics or informative brochures, they need meaningful conversations, loving touches, and quality time with people who will take the time to be with them.
For all the wonderful things that the Machine does to help those in peril, there are still critical areas where no level of technology can replace genuine human interaction. The Machine cannot explain what it means to feel moved by a piece of music, or to feel the sexual tension that might precede a first kiss. It cannot mourn the loss of a friend, or deal with lingering doubts over a tough decision.
The ubiquity of surveillance tech combined with the popularity of social media has created a climate where we convince ourselves that pixelated representations of life are almost as valuable as flesh-and-blood interaction. But given the ways we carefully curate our online personas, we have only an illusion of intimacy. For pastors, where the nature of the job often requires an appropriate distance from those whom we lead, this illusion can be especially convincing. But if all our meaningful relationships are primarily digital, then like the Machine, we can have all the answers and be seemingly everywhere – but also nowhere.
Furthermore, the Machine cannot eliminate the fallen human element from the justice equation. The tension between a just, omnipotent God interacting with fallen humans with free will, one that theologians have been wrestling with for centuries, is one that Jonathan Nolan and his writing staff only occasionally flirt with addressing.
And perhaps this is the biggest lesson we can take from Person of Interest as a model of God – all models and analogies have their breaking point, and we can run into trouble if we can’t distinguish the model from the reality it is supposed to portray.
After all, it may seem comforting to see God as like the Machine, using government resources to keep citizens safe. But for privacy advocates, it can also seem creepy and intrusive. For people of color who face systemic injustices within the criminal justice system, this depiction of God could seem alienating and cruel. There’s a special heartbreak that happens when we mean to transmit a message of hope, but what gets received is more heartache and rejection.
I’m thankful that God keeps finding ways to use us anyhow, even if we experience mystified disbelief along the way. I see those moments in the lives of my favorite Person of Interest characters, and you know what? I can relate.
You’re being watched, the opening voiceover says.
But I think God likes it when His children watch Him back.